A blow-by-blow look back at “The most stupid, appalling, disgusting, and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game.”
Apart from the left hook by England’s heavyweight champion Henry Cooper, which floored the boxer then called Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium on June 18, 1963, there probably wasn’t a better punch in the decade than one a year earlier by Leonel Sánchez of Chile. Impressive though it was, Sánchez’s left uppercut was out of place because he was a footballer playing in a 1962 World Cup group match at Santiago’s National Stadium. His punch KO’d Mario David of Italy.
The irony is that for all the infamy of Sánchez’s punch, it was only a small rotten fish on a tasting menu of violence in a game known as the Battle of Santiago. Despite the innocent patina of black-and-white photography, the game remains among the nastiest in the history of international football.
The Estudiantes-Milan Intercontinental Cup final of 1969 is probably the worst club encounter. And the so-called Battle of Bern in the 1954 World Cup would be a strong rival but for the fact that Hungarian and Brazilian players took lumps off one another in the tunnel and dressing rooms after the match.
But Santiago took place in full view of fans and the press and was recorded by Telecine cameras. Film was freighted around the world so that TV and newsreel viewers could see what radio and newspaper reports had already described. BBC commentator David Coleman introduced the footage to British audiences as “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting, and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game.”
How did this happen, and why did the gifted 24-year-old Sánchez lose control, punching not only David but also Italy’s Humberto Maschio, breaking his nose? He was not sent off for either blow.
Sánchez was his country’s star—a fast, ball-juggling left winger who’d risen to fame with the Universidad de Chile team known as the Blue Ballet for its sparkling football. Following a devastating earthquake in 1960, Chile was awarded the duty of hosting the 1962 tournament as recompense. The national team began 18 months of touring and playing to build what would now be called a club mentality.
Shortly before the tournament, articles in italian newspapers disparaged both santiago and the women of chile. By coincidence, Italy and Chile were drawn in the same first-round group, along with Switzerland and West Germany. Adding to the already higher-than-usual prematch tension was Chile’s resentment of the oriundi, in which South American–born players with family links to Italy were recruited to the Italian cause. Among the South Americans on the Azzurri squad were casino online Argentina’s Omar Sívori, Brazil’s José Altafini, and Maschio, also from Argentina.
By game time on June 2, the managers of the Italian team had become aware of the offending newspaper articles, so after the pregame presentations they sent players to all corners of the stadium, jammed with 66,057 fans, to hand bouquets to Chilean women. News footage shows the flowers being tossed back onto the running track in disdain, and the baleful atmosphere was symbolized by the snowcapped, misty Andes towering over the stadium.
At the start of the game, Italy twice tested Chilean goalkeeper Misael Escuti. The first Italian foul produced a skirmish in which Sánchez and teammate Eladio Rojas were pushed over. Moments later,Italy’s Giorgio Ferrini, who committed the first foul, tussled with Rojas and aimed a vicious kick at him. Just eight minutes had passed. English referee Ken Aston called for help as a swarm of players surrounded the incident, jostling and insulting one another. Armed police intervened to restore order, and Aston ushered Ferrini away. When it became apparent that the midfielder was being sent off, the fans celebrated wildly, and the 10 remaining Italian players gesticulated angrily.
Italy captain Bruno Mora tried to calm his players, and he acted as peacemaker when a careless challenge by Altafini hurt Escuti. But what Mora and Aston probably already knew was that the match had become ungovernable. Rojas and Honorino Landa suffered more Italian fouls, and Sánchez was cuffed by David as the defender faked a handshake after fouling the Chilean winger. The two players brawled on the ground, forcing Aston to go prone like a wrestling referee to separate them.
And then it happened. In the right corner of the Italian defense, Sánchez was holding off David while trying to tease the ball around him. But when he went for his drag-back and cross, Sánchez slipped, fell to the turf, and trapped the ball between his legs. Rather than give it up, he turned his body, and David kicked him twice in an effort to extricate the ball.
The furious Sánchez rose in one movement and threw the left-hander that laid David out. Had the Italian known that Sánchez’s father was a Chilean and South American boxing champion, he might have hesitated before kicking. Instead David fell facedown on the turf, momentarily unconscious, certainly in shock at the speed and accuracy of the smaller man’s punch. Sánchez looked certain to be sent off. But despite punching David in full view of the linesman, he was mysteriously pardoned by Aston, who gave a free kick to Chile.
A few minutes later, David responded with a flying kick to Sánchez’s head as he was receiving the ball—“uma falta violentissima,” according to the commentator—and a melee of players and backroom staff sprawled across the pitch. Aston took decisive action, escorting David off the field. He then turned to check on Sánchez, who later admitted, “I didn’t have a major injury, but in this profession a little bit of acting is required sometimes.” Hoping he wouldn’t be noticed, David returned to the pitch and rejoined teammates.
As the mob dispersed, Aston realized that David had defied him. With Mora’s assistance, he again escorted David to the running track. The first half consumed more than 57 minutes.
In the second half, Chile scored twice—Jaime Ramírez with a looping header (73’) and Jorge Toro (87’) with a low shot—and players continued to scuffle, kick, and brawl. The win gave Chile the momentum to reach the semifinals, where they lost to Brazil, the eventual Cup winners. Chile beat Yugoslavia for third place, their highest ever World Cup finish. Sánchez finished with a share of the Golden Boot award with four goals.
“I regretted that punch the moment I threw it,” Sánchez reflected in 1998. “It was a disappointment to the team and nation.” Football punished Sánchez indirectly by assigning Chile to play at cheerless Roker Park (Sunderland) and Ayresome Park (Middlesbrough) in the 1966 World Cup in England. This time, neither team nor player made an impact, footballing or pugilistic.
As for Aston, his angst at losing control of the Santiago match was later resolved. Sitting in his car at a traffic light in 1966, he realized a red and yellow card system would make player punishment clear and visible for all. The stoplight-like card concept debuted at the 1970 World Cup. Aston won after all.
A feature article from Issue 02. Order your subscription from our Shop.